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February 28, 2017

Trump Presidency Still Taking Shape, Form, and Discipline

After a month in the Oval Office, it is clear that Donald Trump’s presidency is like Winston Churchill’s regrettable pudding: it lacks a theme. Things may change, of course, but thus far the Trump White House is one best described as a swamp of chaos, contradiction, and disarray, driven by a scattershot approach to foreign and domestic policy, one conspicuous for its leaks reflecting rivalries for power that Shakespeare would have appreciated.

This newly minted presidency is off to a ragged, confusing start. Trump has claimed that the White House is a “fine-tuned machine.” The evidence is to the contrary. While President Trump says the U.S. should seize Iranian oil, Secretary of Defense James Mattis says America will not seize Iranian oil, mindful that such an act would violate the Geneva Convention and International Oil. While Trump says NATO is “obsolete,” Mattis praises the value of America’s oldest post-war alliance and says it would have to be invented if it didn’t already exist.

Trump’s disparagement of NATO and his encouragement of the fragmentation of the European Union, bolstered by White House Adviser Steve Bannon’s celebration of economic nationalism, have left our allies in a state of confusion. Ohio Gov. John Kasich has it right: “Trump’s uncontrolled communications are unsettling the world.”

History reminds us that powerful, absolutist assertions of executive authority punctuate policymaking. Stephen Miller, a White House adviser, declared last week in defense of Trump’s executive order banning travel from seven nations in the Middle East—one repudiated by the courts—that “the president’s national security decisions will not be questioned. Will not be questioned.” Really?

Miller’s is a chilling voice from another time and another country, not the voice of American Constitutionalism created by our Founding Fathers who rejected the concept of executive infallibility and cast their lot with the separation of powers, checks and balances and the rule of law.

Questions, concerns, and yes, fears about the aims, intentions, and direction of the Trump administration reverberate across the nation. His dark declaration that the American press is the “enemy of the people” was a page drawn from the playbooks of Lenin and Mussolini, who sought to discredit and delegitimize institutions that hold officials accountable. The outrageous and scurrilous attack on the press, so critical to the maintenance of the American Republic, faces pushback from the public, which in a recent Quinnipiac Poll, indicated by a 52 to 37 percent margin that they trust the media more than they trust Trump.

President Trump’s penchant for doubling down on his false representations, so easily crushed by verifiable evidence, are puzzling and worrisome. School children across the nation can fact-check the historical ranking of Trump’s electoral victory. Contrary to his soaring claims, his electoral college victory ranks in the bottom 25 percent of electoral victories. His persistence in falsely representing the size of the crowds that attended his inaugural address remains puzzling. Why?

A painting of President Andrew Jackson hangs from a wall in the Oval Office. Trump likes to characterize himself as a “disrupter” and flatters himself with comparisons to Old Hickory. Jackson once said that the president must be “accountable at the bar of public opinion for every act of his administration.” For Jackson, accountability was the essence of democracy. This means, at a minimum, that Trump must be accountable to our most fundamental values and standards—truth, evidence, facts, tolerance and the rule of law. The moral leadership of a president is defined by his willingness to measure up to those standards. We are only 30 days into the Trump presidency and Americans are holding that measuring stick.

 

January 31, 2017

Women’s Marches Embody Democratic Values

The millions of women—and men—who marched across the United States on January 21 triggered a reproachful tweet from President Donald Trump: “I watched the protests but was under the impression that we’d just had an election. Why didn’t these people vote?” President Trump’s assumption that arms are lowered at the conclusion of an election was mistaken. Democracy is a system of government that knows no endings, no ultimate conclusions, but rather encourages ongoing dialogue and invites political action every hour of every day. Democracy never sleeps.

Elections have consequences, as President Barack Obama is fond of saying, but political losses may be viewed as mere setbacks—an occasion, sometimes bitter and heartbreaking, for regrouping and renewed strategizing in fighting for great causes. American women know all too well the historic pains associated with the pursuit of great goals. Unlike many men who were born in the early days of the republic and, by simple birthright, enjoyed sweeping rights and liberties, women at the dawn of the republic were forced to wage battles to win all of their rights and liberties. For most of our history, they lost most of their battles.

Enchained by the law of coverture, women were denied legal personality. They were forced to fight for legal personhood, and the right to use contraceptives, the right to vote, equal pay, reproductive freedom, and paid medical leave. Since the beginning, the rights of women were not given, but earned. In the wake of Trump’s victory, they can hardly be blamed for fearing the loss of hard-fought freedoms and liberties.

“What good is served by marches?” it is often asked. History provides a good answer, and it is revealed, for example, in the Suffragist movement, the Civil Rights movement, and the Vietnam War protests. In a word, they are often effective; they can produce magisterial victories for great causes. They are effective because they stir public opinion and influence the climate of the era, which in turn, shapes public policy debates in Washington and beyond. In a democracy, governmental institutions are moved by the activities of the masses.

Thus, it is with good reason that men and women put on their marchin’ shoes to draw attention to their concerns, grievances, and causes. The success of marches was not lost on the founding fathers, which is why they enshrined freedom of assembly in the First Amendment. Understood in the early years of America as “out-of-doors” actions, protests were viewed, and often accepted, as civic engagement, an exercise indispensable to the health and vitality of the republic.

The deep political divisions that characterize American politics in our time are likely to generate many more, even frequent, large-scale protests and marches across the next four years of the Trump presidency. It is hard to believe otherwise. Trump’s big promises—wage increases, new jobs, a more robust economy, and repeal and replacement of Obamacare, among others—touch the public’s nerves and heighten expectations and anxieties.

For many women, Trump’s victory in the electoral college, if not among a majority of voters, suggests in America a sweeping indulgence of sexism and an increased degree of permissiveness toward misogyny. Even if those conclusions are mistaken, there is a felt need to stand guard against efforts to remove the liberties and protections that women have earned in recent years, including broad healthcare coverage. There is a good chance that the recent marches, which drew widely from all age groups—millennials to octogenarians—represents a revival of the women’s rights movement of the 1970s, not only in America, but across the world.